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Open Registry Offers Rx For Dog Ailments

by Larry Shook

(Reprinted by permission, we will be featuring this five part series of articles which originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, WA/Coeur díAlene, ID beginning February 19, 1995)

Itís called an open registry, and dog breeders like JoAnn Teems say "itís the only way" to ever get canine genetic disease under control.

Plenty of people agree with Teems, a breeder of great Pyrenees since 1966. Many of the nationís -- and worldís -- most eminent veterinary researchers are with her all the way. In fact, whole nations happen to agree: Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland.

After decades of breeding practices that ignore genetic health, purebred dogs the world over now stagger under a load of hereditary disease. So far, more than 300 canine genetic disorders have been identified and about 10 new ones are discovered annually. Some geneticists estimate that purebred dogs now are prone to upwards of a thousand hereditary illnesses. They say the problem has gotten so bad that canis familiaris has taken on the hunted look of an endangered species.

Enter the open registry. It allows pedigreed dogs to be tested for genetic diseases, with the outcomes of those tests recorded in a registry available to the public. With enough people entering their dogs in an open registry, defective genes can be tracked down through the wandering tributaries of bloodlines.

When that happens, an open registry becomes a powerful body of information that lets breeders and buyers alike select for healthy dogs while systematically avoiding the expense and heartbreak of crippling hereditary disease. As open registries become the norm, healthy dogs can become the rule and genetic illness can be confined to its naturally rare status.

"It is apparent that breeders are provided with much better information with open registry systems, especially when a high percentage of animals in litters and families are all tested and recorded," says John Mandeville, operations vice president of the American Kennel Club.

On the other hand closed registries, like the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF), certify only animals that are free of genetic disease, keeping the secret of individuals who are afflicted by it or carrying it. This inadvertently maintains dogdomís genetic minefield a disease trip now claiming victims by the blue millions.

Pioneered in Sweden in the 1970s, the open registry has proven itself throughout Scandinavia. The Swedish open registry is credited with playing a central role in cutting hip dysplasia among all breeds by 50 percent in a 13-year period beginning in 1976. Thatís pretty impressive, hip dysplasia being one of the most intractable gene-born diseases.

Based on those successes, a group of concerned veterinarians and breeders enlisted the help of a top computer programmer and incorporated the first multi breed open registry in American in 1990. Located in Davis, California, it is known as the Institute for Genetic Disease Control in Animals. Faculty members at the prestigious University of California-Davis vet school figured prominently in midwifing the new registry.

While many in the dog world still know little about it, some of the countryís most dedicated dog lovers already are working GDC hard. Groups active in half a dozen breeds -- poodles, cairn terriers, Bernese mountain dogs, Labrador retrievers, great Pyrenees, and Rottweilers -- have opened a variety of registries and research databases with GDC.

At least as many other breed organizations are presently exploring GDC affiliation. Dr. Paul Poulos, Jr., GDCís executive director, says that, based on inquiries, interest in the open registry appears to be growing daily. And Barbara Packard, a Bernese mountain dog enthusiast who was present at the creation of GDC and who remains one of its strongest driving forces, reports receiving more and more calls from breeders around the country who are trying to move their breed clubs toward open registration of hereditary disease.

These efforts show how concerned breeders can work together to breed not just winning but genetically winsome dogs. They may also hint at the shape of things to come. Dr. Autumn Davidson, a director of GDC and Labrador retriever breeder, says that anyone wishing to breed to her dogs who is not a member of the open registry should save themselves the expense of a phone call.

Those interested in GDC information can write to Box 222, Davis, CA 95617. Phone or fax at (916) 756-6773.

Larry Shook is author of "The Puppy Report," winner of the Ethical Issues Award of the Dog Writers Association of America.


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